The Whale Review: Brendan Fraser in Darren Aronofsky’s drama

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Venice: For Fraser, The Whale is a confident leap forward to the movie star status he rightly deserves.

There are two things to be a little worried about and one thing to look forward to when coming to The Whale.

The first element of concern is director Darren Aronofsky, who has admittedly directed exceptional films like Requiem for a Dream and Pi, and given his leads in Black Swan and The Wrestler career-defining performances. But his last two films, “Noah” and “Mother!”, succumbed to all of his worst instincts, creating bloated, smug nonsense that was actively painful to swallow.

Also of some concern in The Whale is its use of “fat suits,” which contemporary audiences are increasingly uncomfortable with. Much of the use of these so-called fat suits has been to make fat-phobic jokes, particularly turning skinny movie stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, and Courteney Cox into walking punchlines. While the usage itself is fatphobic, in the case of Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp in American Crime Story, there’s also the consideration that heavier actors, who often compete for roles, don’t get opportunities to play fat roles.

Most of those who come to The Whale, however, can ooze goodwill because of Brendan Fraser. After enduring well-documented injury and abuse at the hands of the film industry, Fraser retired from Hollywood, leaving behind heartbroken Gen X-ers and millennials who adored him in a variety of roles, from adorable himbos to tragic misfits and smartass action heroes. After a few tentative steps back into the limelight in small roles and television appearances, the comeback was further cemented when he was cast in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move. Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” makes it official: the Brendanaissance is on!

Fraser literally gives a stellar performance as Charlie, a 600-pound man who teaches writing classes online and never leaves his apartment. Despite the best efforts of his best friend Liz (Hong Chau), Charlie refuses to go to the hospital despite showing signs of congestive heart failure and having a blood pressure of 238/134. Charlie has never recovered since the death of Alan, the “love of his life,” a few years ago and has since spent the time on his sofa, slowly eating himself to death. This final week functions almost as an introvert’s counterpart to “Leaving Las Vegas,” a similar journey into self-destruction, but here with a silent declaration of solitude. The plot of The Whale, true to the play it is based on, never leaves Charlie’s small apartment.

The fat suit is what it is. There are plenty of good reasons to believe this film has unacceptable fatphobic undertones and stance, particularly one scene where it suggests a person could overdose on mayonnaise as if it were uncut heroin. And many could be triggered by a central fat character that’s openly called “disgusting” throughout. But in terms of practical effects, it’s hard not to be impressed with the prosthetics, particularly around Fraser’s face, as they appear reasonably realistic. He is capable of delivering a hilarious and devastating performance seemingly unhindered.

Charlie knows he only has a few days left, so he decides to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he left behind when he fell in love with Alan eight years ago. She’s 16 now and is failing high school. The couple’s only contact was paying child support and sporadic updates about their mother. Ellie is a nightmarish caricature of a teenager. Sink unwisely keeps her power at a 10 at any moment, which is cumulatively grating. A respite comes when her mother, played by the always excellent Samantha Morton, comes over to Charlie to see her troubled daughter in a well-timed “Charlie!” She’s evil!”

Despite the hilarity of this scathing assessment, The Whale actually works best when it’s at its least gruesome. When Fraser points out Charlie’s joke in a back-and-forth with a stubborn and hypocritical missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins) assures him with a gentle smile, “I’ve read the Bible. I found it devastating.” Or indeed, when Liz jokingly threatens to stab him and he hugs her, making her laugh tenderly by whispering, “What’s this about? My internal organs are at least two feet deep.” If his confrontation with Morton is so full of mutual compassion, it’s hard to believe this is from the same movie where Charlie sloppily eats a chicken wing with such outrageous disgust.

Without Brendan Fraser’s innate charm and ability to project gentle sadness through the faintest flicker of his huge blue eyes, The Whale wouldn’t have had much more. Morton and Chau’s flawless performances illuminate the complicated relationships with Charlie, a man who is at once endearing, frustrating and dishonest.

Aronofsky’s direction is understated, but brings a cinematic flair that plays into Charlie’s claustrophobic existence rather than just feeling burdened by the story’s origins on stage (where it’s confined to a single set). Samuel D. Hunter’s screenplay contains elements that commend it. The references to “Moby Dick” that seem tiresome at the beginning of the film build into something moving and even profound in the film’s final moments.

For Fraser, The Whale is a confident leap forward into the movie star status he rightly deserves. For the normally more subdued Venice audience, who typically rush to exit the moment the film ends, the mere sight of Fraser’s name in the credits drew the crowd back to the screen to witness the actor’s triumphant return cheer and applaud. If this thunderous applause continues throughout awards season, it could prove to be the most beautiful and poignant moment of this whale’s journey.

grade B-

The Whale premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. A24 hits theaters on Friday December 9th.

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